Review of The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick

I wonder what looks my fellow drivers tossed my way when I pulled up to a stoplight with my speakers blaring not the latest Taylor Swift hit, but rather a didactic narrator explaining the intricies of the Pythagorean Theorem and the apocalypticism of Isaac Newton. For weeks, I was riveted with my audiobook of The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, written by Edward Dolnick and narrated by Alan Sklar.

The book offers oft-forgotten context to the earliest discoveries of the scientific revolution. It is easy to forget that the world which brought us the universal law of gravitation was a world still full of angels and demons, plagues and deadly fires, high murder rates, and, vividly, the odors that come from an unbathed populace. They believed in magic, madness, heaven, and sin. We think of the scientific revolution being a dramatic reversal from the “dark ages,” but the picture is far more nuanced. A great deal of intellectualism thrived during the medieval period; the shift toward empirical thinking developed slowly over the centuries.

Perhaps the central thing we are keen to forget – that some sectors are loathe to remember – is the deep-seated religiosity of the first scientists. Once upon a time, there was little tension between science and religion. The first fearless scientists were actually partially motivated by their ideas about God: a rational creator who made the universe operate according to universal laws, who was capable of being understood by mere mortals. This beautiful mathematician had created a clockwork universe, and to study the clock was to better know the very mind of God.

Two particular portions of Dolnick’s book stood out as highlighting the relationship between religion and science, one quite capably and the other less thoroughly.

The first addressed Newton, clearly one of the most brilliant scientists of his day. Intriguingly, he devoted as much time decyphering the prophecies of Revelation than he did to explaining the theory of gravity. In an tumultuous era of widespread epidemics, frequent warfare, and near religious upheaval, the warnings of Revelation seemed more true than we can imagine today. His postulation of a clockwork universe did not involve the Deistic God of the Enlightenment Era, who set the hands and let the clock run its way, but rather a “God [who] sat enthroned at the center of creation” and was “a participant in the world, not a spectator.”

Less comprehensive was Dolnick’s depiction of Galileo’s controversy with the church. Dolnick spends little time on the conflict between Galileo and the church, rehashing the tired trope of the martyr for science butting heads with the Catholic church by saying that “Galileo would face the threat of torture and then die under house arrest for arguing in favor of a sun-centered universe.” He later hints, however, that the problem may have lay more with Galileo’s cantakerous approach. When writing his dialogues, Galileo put a “pet argument” of Pope Urban VIII into the mouth of Simplicio – the simpleton.

A closer look, from First Things, complicates the classic tale: Galileo didn’t have enough evidence for the radical change he was proposing and was proven wrong on other arguments (like the planets orbiting the sun in circles). Fresh from the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church put a moratorium on private interpretations of Scripture. Yet Galileo continued to write the church arguing not about science, but about biblical interpretation. He made it through one Inquisition without being convicted of heresy; for a moment, it looked as though he might continue in total peace. Yet his subsequent insulting of the Pope and bizarre defense in trial led to his house arrest, during which he continued to perform research and refine his ideas. Galileo’s is a story of several hot tempers leading to bad blood. It certainly should prompt no compliments to the Catholic church, but it’s also hard to justify the strong condemnation contemporary scientists want to mete out.

To be fair, the book spends a much smaller fraction of its time on Galileo than on Newton, and these pages are more fragmented, so it’s no surprise that parts are missed. This stylistic feature was somewhat distracting, as the story seemed to jump around between different figures and ideas. Yet the vividness of the stories and Dolnick’s ability to make these early modern men relatable well made up for it, as do the author’s simple, yet capable explanations of key scientific ideas.

Even with its imperfections, it was refreshing to read an honest depiction of the founders of the scientific age, both in their Christian commitments and their religious foibles. The author paints a sometimes unflattering, yet always real, portrait of these icons we so admire today.

Studying the history of science helps us to shake off the shackles of a secular education and recognize the ways in which science emerged from a richly Christian framework. Science and religion may never ever get back together in the same way, but Dolnick reminds us that in the not-so-distant past, they were once brothers.

 

Jordan Monge graduated from Harvard in 2012 with a concentration in Philosophy. A proud penguin of Quincy House, she served as editor-in-chief of the Ichthus in 2011. She now works as a tutor in Irvine, CA, which gives her plenty of time to listen to audiobooks on her commute, when she’s not dancing to “Shake It Off.”

 

Photo credit: td2 from morguefile.com.

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